In the run-up to and around the 5th of June, World Environment Day, we'll be exploring our urban environment, the climate change crisis and more over a series of features.
Amid the hustle and bustle of busy Waterloo, Matt Brown discovers seven green oases, each with something different to offer.
With gently undulating hills and curvy paths, I’ve always thought that Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank has a touch of the Teletubbies about it. Its playfulness belies an impressive history. The land was once home to the Dome of Discovery and Skylon structures, key symbols of the 1951 Festival of Britain. After the festival, the area was briefly used as a heliport (the little-known Waterloo Air Terminal), before regressing to a car park. Jubilee Gardens was created in 1977 to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. The park took a bit of a battering at the end of the century, when it was used as a worksite for construction of the Jubilee line, followed by the London Eye and the Golden Jubilee footbridges. However, a 2012 revamp, which introduced those Teletubby curves, has restored this into one of the gems of the South Bank. Look out for the 32 metre flagpole, which is the sole surviving structure on the site from the 1951 festival.
Bernie Spain Gardens
Also on the South Bank, beside the OXO Tower, can be found Bernie Spain Gardens. The green space is named after Bernadette Spain, a local campaigner who helped set up the Coin Street Community Builders. This social enterprise has totally transformed this part of London, creating cooperative housing, supporting local communities and maintaining these gardens. It’s a park of two halves. A bustling green sits to the north, attracting thousands of passers-by on the Thames Path each day. Take a moment out by reclining on the angled pedestal, which deliberately faces towards St Paul’s. South of this space is a more secluded green, which serves as a quiet oasis away from the crowds. Built into a hollow shape, this is a delightful spot to sit beneath the cherry trees and watch the clouds roll by.
Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden
Note: Likely to be closed during coronavirus lockdown measures.
The third South Bank garden is a hidden one. Ascend the yellow staircase on the north-western corner of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and you’ll be rewarded with a spacious roof garden. The previously underused terrace was greened up about a decade ago, and is now a much-cherished part of the South Bank Centre. It boasts extensive plant beds, vegetable patches, fruit trees, planters, riverside views and a popular cafe. There’s even a scarecrow. It’s so well done that you can almost forget that you’re standing on a brutalist, concrete building in the very centre of London.
Waterloo Millennium Green
Much of the Waterloo area was once covered by boggy flood plain -- a history still recalled in the street name of Lower Marsh. You can get a glimpse of this past on Waterloo Millennium Green. Beside a large lawn can be found a sequence of attractive ponds and water channels, all set off with an abundance of wild flowers. Bankside Open Spaces Trust, who manage the gardens, are looking to make further improvements, including play and nature trails and better accessibility.
Ufford Street Gardens
Waterloo isn’t all about commuter trains and the frivolities of the South Bank. Thousands of people live here, too. The streets behind the Old Vic conceal a particularly fine example of early 20th century social housing (though much is now private). Among the houses, provision was also made for a small open space, now known as Ufford Street Gardens. Used mostly by locals, it contains a pretty decent playground -- installed with Heritage Lottery cash in 2008 -- and is engirdled by mature plane trees.
Falling just within the Waterloo area, Hatfields Green is a small oasis just south of Bernie Spain Gardens -- on Hatfields. The green was carved out from bomb-blasted streets after the Second World War, which explains why none of the trees have yet reached full maturity. Despite its relative youth, the park does call back to older times. The main path through the park follows the line of an ancient track known as The Broadwall. The recently spruced-up park also includes a couple of five-a-side courts.
St John’s Churchyard
No list of Waterloo’s gardens could be complete without the churchyard of St John’s itself. This unexpected oasis, right next to one of the world’s busiest stations, is a joy to explore. The award-winning space contains a wildlife garden, pollution-sapping plants, winding paths and undulating lawns, mosaics and sculptures, and a concrete bench shaped like Waterloo Bridge. The garden is tended by volunteers and provides training opportunities to vulnerable people. Their efforts have created a much-cherished space that has been awarded Green Flag status.
Matt Brown is editor-at-large of Londonist.com, a website about London and everything in it. He’s also the author of Everything You Know About London is Wrong (among other books), and has hosted several ‘pub quiz’ events for Waterloo Festival in previous years.